Leopard at the Door

Leopard at the Door

by Jennifer McVeigh

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Overview

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

Set in Kenya in the 1950s against the fading backdrop of the British Empire, a story of self-discovery, betrayal, and an impossible love from the author of The Fever Tree.
 
After six years in England, Rachel has returned to Kenya and the farm where she spent her childhood, but the beloved home she’d longed for is much changed. Her father’s new companion—a strange, intolerant woman—has taken over the household. The political climate in the country grows more unsettled by the day and is approaching the boiling point. And looming over them all is the threat of the Mau Mau, a secret society intent on uniting the native Kenyans and overthrowing the whites.

As Rachel struggles to find her place in her home and her country, she initiates a covert relationship, one that will demand from her a gross act of betrayal. One man knows her secret, and he has made it clear how she can buy his silence. But she knows something of her own, something she has never told anyone. And her knowledge brings her power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735210387
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/03/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 44,251
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jennifer McVeigh is the author of Leopard at the Door and The Fever Tree. She graduated from Oxford University in 2002 with a First in English literature. She went on to work in film, television, radio, and publishing before giving up her day job to write fiction.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer McVeigh

 

I

 

 

 

Mombasa, Kenya. The steward has said we will dock at 9am, but I am too excited to sleep, and I walk onto deck in the dark, long before the sun comes up, watching for the first sight of land. I pull a packet of cigarettes from my coat pocket, light one and inhale, smoke curling up into the warm night sky. My heart beats out a rhythm born of long anticipation. After six years I am finally coming home.

 

The lamp casts a small pool of light onto a black metal bench. Someone has left a book behind, and I pick it up. The Settler’s Guide to Up-Country Swahili: Exercises for the Soldier, Settler, Miner, Merchant and their Wives.  I open it and cast my eye over the introduction. This book aims at teaching, in a simple way, just that degree of Swahili that is understood and talked by the average intelligent up-country native. A curious use of adjectives, not something you would find in England. It is a long time since I have used my Swahili and I wonder how much will come back to me. The book starts with greetings, and I turn the phrases over silently on my tongue, enjoying the familiar rhythm of the words Jambo Bwana. Jambo Memsaab. Habari Gani hapa? Habari mzuri tu, Bwana. What’s the news here? Only good news, Bwana. I slip the book into my pocket, unconsciously reciting the phrases as I stare out into the dark, waiting for our arrival.

 

An hour later the sun rises huge and heavy from the horizon. Through a screen of mist I make out the shadow of Mombasa island. A couple wander onto deck, clutching cups of coffee and bread rolls, whispering excitedly. My eyes are fixed on what lies ahead. Green coconut palms and a scattering of white buildings emerge out of water so blue that I realise I have forgotten the meaning of colour. The sky is clear and limitless. In England – a country in the grip of rationing, where the sun struggles to illuminate even the clearest winter day - no one has understood my descriptions of the sky in Kenya. My skin burns in the early morning sun, my neck damp beneath the weight of my hair. The white sails of the Arab dhows soar like the wings of huge, prehistoric birds, their decks crammed so full of Africans, grinning and shouting, clinging to every mast, that sinking seems an inevitability.

 

They shout up their greetings in Swahili. Karibu. Welcome. And I grin down at them, waving.

 

We dock, and I step giddily down the gangplank into a city that smells of fish, of salt, of acrid wood smoke and sewage – the smell of a city whose people live life outdoors under a hot sun - down into the sweltering heat of the customs sheds where I am left waiting, sweating for a few hours before being released onto the small, crowded streets of Mombasa’s port.

 

Bougainvillea tumble over white walls, purple, orange, crimson red, amidst the trumpets of white datura flowers and clusters of pink hibiscus. Dhow captains spread their intricately woven carpets on the street for sale, beating out the dust in thick clouds. Porters in bare feet and white lunghis pad across the hot cobbles between piles of old newspaper and fish bones, past the Arab men dressed in white robes, who sit on low wooden stools drinking tea. I can smell roasting fish rising from a charcoal fire tended by two sailors in brightly coloured kikoys, who stand prodding the coals, spitting out jets of red betel nut into the street, while others unload their cargo – boxes of fish, dates, henna, great piles of copper wire. Indian women in saris gossip in close groups. I stand and watch, dazzled by so much noise and colour, happiness soaring inside me. I have escaped England. I am back in Africa. But I am not home yet. There are still four hundred miles to travel, up country, before I see the farm, before I see my father.

 

Aleela,” a voice says behind me, and a hand touches me on the shoulder. Aleela – she cries in Swahili. It was the name the Africans had given me as a baby, when I was born healthy, after my mother had given birth to a child who never breathed.

 

I turn and see Kahiki, our headman, standing there, his stick in one hand.

 

Jambo I say, smiling as hard as I have ever smiled in my life.

Jambo Sana he answers, his eyes smiling back at me, grasping my outstretched hand in his sinewy one. And – just like that – I have come home.

 

II

 

 

We come out onto the main road, into a cacophony of beeping and shouting. There has been an accident. A truck carrying pigs has turned over in the middle of the road and the traffic is at a standstill. A crowd of Africans gather round, watching. Tight rolls of pig flesh squeeze out of the slatted sides, their squeals sharpening the gloopy midday heat. Downers my uncle used to call them; pigs which were all cut up. He owns Uplands – the bacon factory which supplies Kenya’s Europeans and safari outfits with the sausages, hams and pork pies that remind them of home.

 

We nudge our way past, the pigs grunting as they struggle to find a footing on the small slither of space which forms the side panel of the truck. Those who do find a foothold on the floor, are being crushed under the weight of those on top. The truck emits a dark, dense heat, palpable with the wet stench of their panic, and the dry chafing of their bristles.

 

They must have been on their way to the train which would take them to the factory. They’ll be loaded anyway, once they get the truck back on the road; and finished off when they get there. I look away, struggling to suppress the memories which are threatening to take shape inside me. I have forgotten this other side of Kenya: a raw physicality that has no shame in the inevitability of pain.

 

The jeep is parked just beyond the truck.  Kahiki throws my luggage into the back and I see a man of about my father’s age, with a closely cut blond beard, and a dark, suntanned face, making his way through the crowd towards us. He is wearing tattered khaki shorts and desert boots, and he holds a black camera in one hand. He is broad and tall, and moves easily, though his face is creased with sun and age.

 

“You’re Rachel?” He holds out a large hand, and grasps mine in his. “Nathaniel Logan. Good to meet you.”

 

“Hi,” I say, unsure why he is here. His voice has the mellow, slow drawl of an American. He is a curious mix of down at heel, and well kitted out.

 

He gets into the driver’s seat, and I realise, with a swallow of disappointment, what I hadn’t trusted myself to ask Kahiki – that my father has not come to meet me.

 

Nathanial Logan leans over and opens the passenger door with one hand, “Your father asked me to pick you up. He’s stuck at the farm. They’ve had some trouble with the harvest.”

 

He stows his camera in a box, then glances up at me, standing in the street. “Hey kiddo, it’s not so bad. I won’t bite.”

 

I swing myself up into the passenger seat. Kahiki is in the back. The American starts the engine, and hands me a bunch of bananas, toy size and sunflower yellow. I tear one off the bunch, peel it and bite into an almost impossible sweetness - after three weeks of tinned food on the ship, the sensation of something so sun soaked and sweet makes me catch my breath.

 

“The truck turned over an hour ago.” Nathanial pulls the car out into the road, his hand on the horn, the crowd parting to let us through.

 

“Why don’t they let the pigs out?”

 

“They don’t want even more of a mess.”

 

Once we have manoeuvred onto the clear road, he looks at me and smiles. “First time back in a long while?”

 

“Six years.”

 

“I’ll bet you missed it like hell.”

 

I smile back at him. He has just about summed it up.

 

The white houses of Mombasa give way to lush vegetation, banana palms and fruit trees. He must sense the question in my silence, because he says, “I was coming as far as Nairobi anyway. I needed to buy some gear.” He gestures at the back of the Land Rover and I see a tarpaulin strapped over the boot. “Trying to keep the dust out. Damn stuff corrodes the kit.”

 

“How do you know my father?”

 

“I’ve been staying at Matebele for the last couple of months.”

 

“With the Markhams?” Matebele was a farm about an hour’s drive from Kisima. Lillian Markham had been my mother’s closest friend, and we had written to each other over the last six years. “What are you doing up there?” Our corner of Kenya was out of the way, and we rarely had visitors who weren’t farmers.

 

“I’m working for the American Museum of Natural History. Trying to track white rhino. I’ve found some good specimens up in Laikipia, near the Markham’s farm.”

 

“To hunt?”

 

“To photograph. This man – ” He turns in his seat and grins at Kahiki, “ –found them for me. One of the best trackers I’ve ever met.”

 

Kahiki nods at Nathaniel, which is as close as he comes to smiling. He is Dorobo. He is small and strong, and made of muscle. He has quick eyes and clever hands. He carved wooden toys for me as a child, his knife shaping the wood into a lioness or baboon that was so real it was as though his hands had coaxed it into life. He knew the land better than anyone else on the farm – he could track any bird or animal. He could find the claw marks of a leopard on a yellow barked acacia, and tell you how long before he had climbed down, and when he had last made a kill. He hunted with a bow and arrow, and I used to love watching the flick of the thin arrow floating high up into the air, its soft flight belying the deadly accuracy of its aim. It was Kahiki who set the trap for a lioness who was raiding my father’s cattle; who found an elephant tusk buried deep in the earth which weighed nearly ninety pounds, the largest ever recorded on our land.

 

“You used to take me into the forest, and call for the honey guide bird – do you remember?” I ask Kahiki in Swahili.

 

“Yes, Aleela. And you would not eat the honey in the forest for fear that the bees would come back for you.”

 

I laugh – remembering. “The honey guide would lead us to a hive nesting in the branches of a tree and Kahiki would rub sticks into fire, and smoke out the bees. When we had collected what we wanted we used to leave the comb for the honey guide – ” I turn to Kahiki – “– You always said that the bird would next time lead us to a mamba if we did not.”

 

“And it is true.” He replies, his yellowing brown eyes soft on mine.

 

“Kahiki used to walk with my mother.” I say, feeling a sliver of pain in remembering, but pleasure too in sharing this, like the turning of a tooth. I can see the sitting room where she worked at Kisima, the long shelf crammed full of strange objects gathered from the land. And the early morning walks along the narrow tracks that spun like spider’s webs through the dense bush, Kahiki in front, his bow in one hand, my mother’s footsteps just behind my own. “She used to collect things.”

 

“What kind of things?”

 

“Fossils, bones, bits of stone. Anything that hadn’t moved in a thousand years. That’s what my father used to say.”

 

“She was interested in palaeontology?”.

 

“I don’t know.” I say, realising as I say it that there is very little that I do know. I knew her only as my mother; the feel of her hands, rough and warm against my skin, the dry smell of the sun on her hair, the quick laugh that transformed her face. “She used to say that the first humans came from Africa.” I have not remembered it until now, and I realise that this is what Kenya will do for me. It will unlock those hidden places, and bring them out tight and full of pain.

 

“It’s not impossible. Darwin thought it might be true.” He glances at me as he drives, “Are you interested in Natural History?”

 

I shake my head. “I was a child when I left Kenya. I didn’t know anything about Natural History.” And as I say it I hear the bitter edge to my voice; that my mother eludes me; that I did not know her better.

 

I turn in my seat, asking Kahiki about the farm, my father, his children, eager for any news he can give me, and happy to find that my Swahili is coming back to me.

 

“They are good,” Kahiki says, nodding his head, “All good Aleela,” but he is not a man who likes to talk, and I will have to wait until I am home to see how things are at the farm.

 

We drive through the outskirts of Mombasa, past the corrugated shacks and road side stalls that make up the straggling edges of the city. Nathaniel overtakes two police jeeps, the officers dressed in soft khaki shirts tucked into holsters, rifles pointing in the air. One of the soldiers takes off his red beret and puckers his mouth in a silent whistle as we drive past, and I look away, embarrassed in front of Kahiki and the American.

 

“What kind of trouble?” I ask, remembering what Nathaniel had said about the harvest.

 

“A couple of nights ago someone broke into the barns at Kisima. Your father had just brought in the grain. They didn’t take much – a few bags. The police are making enquiries.”

 

“Was anyone hurt?” The newspapers on the ship were littered with stories of Mau Mau – the secret society which had sprung up in Kenya. It was said that they wanted to unite the Kikuyu and overthrow the whites.

 

“No,” He glances at me, “it was more than likely a simple case of theft.”

 

But nothing more than a bag of sugar had ever gone missing at the farm. Who would risk breaking into my father’s barns?

 

When sleep washes over me I am standing by the dam at Kisima. My mother is kneeling on the bank with her back to me, slacks hitched, her fingers feeling for something buried in the earth. Her blond hair is plaited – the same plait she used to work into my own hair, my scalp tingling with the tug of her fingers. The sun glows through the fine hairs that have worked loose, and she draws one arm across her face to wipe the sweat from her eyes. I run towards her – Mama! With a flood of relief I see that she has heard me, but as she turns the dream dissolves and I have not seen her face. I jolt awake. The car rattles over the road. Nathaniel Logan is driving, one elbow resting on the open window.

 

I must have slept for longer than I thought. We are in open country. The plains of the central highlands stretch into the hazy distance like the shimmering, tawny back of a lion. Herds of wildebeest and zebra mingle in the long grass, and far off I can see elephant moving, their bodies silhouetted against the afternoon sky like dark storm clouds. The smell of the dry road, the rolling grasslands, the warmth of the sun against my skin make the last six years seem almost as though they were a dream.

 

I draw a finger across my forearm, through the yellow dust that has settled on the blond hairs. My first night in England. I crept down the carpeted stairs of my grandparents’ house, unable to sleep, unused to the sound of the rain spitting cold and damp against the window.

 

“And you honestly believe she will be happy here?” My father was asking, unaware of me crouched on the stairs, listening.

 

“Of course she will. This is the right place for her. Think of her education. The friends she will make.” My grandmother, a woman I had met only a few hours before, paused. “You can’t be selfish about this Robert. She has lost her mother. She needs rest and the chance to recover. The stability of an English school. It’s what she should have been given years ago. We can provide all of those things.” I could hear her voice deftly untying the elaborate knot that links a parent to their child.

 

“Papa,” I had said carefully the next day, when I had him to myself, trying to articulate my concern. “Are you going back home?”

 

“Don’t let’s think about it Rachel,” he said.

 

“But if you do –you’ll take me with you. You won’t leave me here?”

 

He leaned down, held my head in his hands, and kissed my forehead. I had taken it as an agreement but a week later he was gone and my grandparents had enrolled me at a boarding school.

 

You need to finish school, my father’s letters had insisted, then you can come home, but I was twelve years old, bewildered and sick for home in an institution that smelled of bleach and wet plimsolls, where we undressed for strip washes once a week in the early morning dark, and our letters written home were strictly censored. The years looming ahead of me seemed unconquerable. It was as though I had been buried alive. There was always the promise that he would come visit me, but one year rolled into another and he never came; a new shipment of cattle from England; a fire in one of the barns; the long drought of ‘51. Managing Kisima – trying to break in its acres of rough country and extract a profit from them – took up all his time.

 

The farm became the depository for all my dreams. The failures at school, the rigid discipline, the pining for my mother, the friends I made but was prepared too easily to lose, were resolved in my imagining of a homecoming. Finally the time came, my exams were over, but his letter, when it arrived, was completely unexpected. Don’t think of coming back Rachel. Your life is in England, with your mother’s family. You talk of home, but you have not been here since you were a child. Have you forgotten how isolated we are? Kisima has little to offer a girl of your age; no shops, no movie theatres, no opportunities; nothing but miles of uncut country. This is no place to build a life. It is too far from the people you are familiar with, and the world you have grown up in.

 

The world you have grown up in. He thought of my childhood as England, but England meant nothing to me. Did he know that each of his letters had been filed away in a box which I kept under my bed at school? That I would wait until Sunday afternoon when all the other children were outside playing games, and lift the lid, inhaling the faint smell of incense and wood fires that carried me home, extracting – in the quiet of the dormitory – every last ounce of sharp pleasure that his letters could give me?

 

I scarcely knew my grandparents. I had seen them for a brief few weeks every year - at Christmas and Easter – when I went to stay in the cold, dark, stone house on the outskirts of Hull, where the hours of the day ticked by mercilessly slowly. My grandmother asked me not to walk up onto the moor, forbid me from going into town on my own, and – either out of grief or disapproval – disliked me talking about Kenya. Their lives were quiet and fiercely conservative, dominated by the weekly church meetings, and the charity teas that my grandmother insisted I attend, dressed in long wool skirts and buttoned blouses. There was no life for me in Hull. Kisima was the only home I had known and its land was my inheritance. I wanted to see its colours, its people; I wanted to help my father on the farm as my mother had done.

 

The day his letter arrived, I bought a ticket on a ship from Southampton to Mombasa, using the entirety of the money that my father had sent me on my 18th birthday. I wrote him a note and posted it from Southampton, telling him that I was coming home.

 

Now I wonder what we will say to each other after so long. I am caught between an awkwardness that I have come back when he explicitly told me not to, and something else. He chose to leave me behind, decided not to take me home with him. When my mother died I lost two parents, and this betrayal sits sorely within me. A bullet with no exit wound.

 

“We’ll stay the night in Nairobi,” Nathaniel says, when he sees I am awake. I nod in agreement; Kisima is too far from Mombassa make the drive in one day.

 

We are at higher altitude here, and the air settles cool against my skin. We drive through the outskirts of town, past a white post and rail fence marking off the long gallops of Nairobi’s race track. A man is walking in the road in front of us, behind a herd of sheep, a stick resting across his shoulders. Nathaniel slows the car behind them. The sheep stand bleating in the road, their wool filthy and matted, until the man beats the earth around them and they are stirred into scattered motion. We pass a sagging wire fence, children kicking a ball on a dusty patch of earth. Flat-topped acacias cast their latticed shade over huts nestled into the landscape, metal roves winking in the sun. We drive past Kikuyu women with babies tied to their backs, wrapped in scarves, walking into town. A donkey grazes on the side of the road, black barrels strapped to his sides, and beside him, under a lone tree, a man is resting. Clusters of green leaves emerge from the tangle of white thorns above him. His clothes are worn and tattered, and a panga is strung from his belt.

 

“Where are we staying?” I ask, when he turns off the main road. The car rattles past the green lawns of a golf course. I don’t remember this part of town.

 

“The Muthaiga Club.”

 

“My father isn’t a member,” I am worried that he has got the wrong idea. The Muthaiga Country Club is for private members, the wealthy settlers of Kenya Colony; the second sons of English aristocrats who have been here for generations, not the farmers like my father who came out after the first war, and bought their fifty thousand acres with loans from the government.

 

“It’s alright. I’ve told them to expect you,” He says.  “I’m meeting clients there in the morning. We’ll head off after that.”

 

The road takes us past a row of squat, single storey buildings behind freshly painted blue railings. There is something about the institutional neatness of the buildings, a coldness – like a premonition – which makes the hairs on my arms stand on end.

 

“Is it a prison?” I ask, trying to get a better look.

 

“Mathari Mental Hospital,” Nathanial says, “For Kenya Colony’s insane.”

 

“People who are mad?”

 

“Mad, epileptic, and more than likely a handful who simply don’t tow the line.” He runs a hand over his beard, and shakes his head in mocking respect. “The codes of conduct in Kenya are unspoken but not to be transgressed.”

 

“What codes of conduct?” I ask, hearing the irony in his voice, but not quite understanding.

 

He looks at me, is if assessing my age, as if he might have overestimated me. Then says – “It doesn’t do to let the side down in Kenya. Europeans have to keep up appearances, set a good example to the African – no seedy living, no fraternising with the labour. And those who don’t – well, the colony gets rid of them as best they can.”

 

Then it is behind us, and we are driving up to the Muthaiga Club – a deep pink building with white colonnades and a red tiled roof, bordered with immaculate lawns. It sits comfortably under the shade of acacias.

 

Kahiki jumps out and hands our luggage down to the porter.

 

“Eleven o’clock tomorrow?” Nathaniel asks in Swahili, shaking his hand.

 

“Sawa sawa.” Kahiki replies, nodding his goodnight, and walking around the back of the building to the African quarters.

 

I follow Nathaniel Logan through the swing door of the club. Inside the walls are panelled with dark wood and lined with English hunting prints. The air is thick with cigar smoke and the low murmur of voices.

 

We eat dinner at the hotel bar and I feel, for a moment, very alone. As if reading my thoughts, Nathaniel Logan asks, “When did you last see each other?”

 

“My father?”

 

He nods.

 

“Not for six years.”

 

He pushes his plate away, and offers me a small, thin cigar from a silver case. I take one, and he leans forward to light it, then lights his own, drawing deeply, looking at me over clouds of dark smoke. “He never came to England?”

 

I shake my head, giving in to the strength of the smoke, its grip on my lungs, the looseness it brings to my thoughts. It is strange to hear it articulated, my father’s absence. Boarding school was full of girls who had been left behind. Our lot was unremarkable.

 

“He sent you back to go to school?”

 

“Partly,” I say, breathing out smoke. “I went back when my mother died. He left me with my grandparents.” He looks right at me. His gaze is too direct. I swallow down the sudden urge to cry. “He couldn’t come. It was too difficult for him to get away from the farm.”

 

“Well, I’m sure that’s true.” He says, looking away and drawing on his cigar, but his words hold no reassurance.

 

A man with a long, black moustache passes our table. He clasps a hand on Nathaniel Logan’s shoulder. “Are you back in the land of the living?”

 

“Not yet,” Nathaniel says, shaking his head.

 

“Damn it, Logan - why bury yourself in Laikipia with your cameras, when you could be on safari with me?”

 

“Who is he?” I ask when the man has gone.

 

“Just another English aristocrat, cast adrift in Africa. He’s been trying to persuade me to track elephant for him. He wants a record set of tusks.”

 

“Do you hunt?”

 

“I used to.”

 

“Why don’t you go?”

 

“Because I’m driving you up to your farm,” Nathaniel says, smiling at me, and taking a long pull on his beer. “Besides, I don’t go in for killing any more.” He grinds his cigar out in the silver ashtray. “I’ve had my fun. I’ll leave it to the rest of them.”

 

I realise that I like Nathaniel Logan. Years of boarding school have taught me to be wary of people who mould themselves too easily to the common cause, but he seems to keep himself just enough apart from people to make his own judgment.

 

At eight o’ clock a hush falls over the dining room. The men put down their cards, and the women stop their chatting. Across the room comes the sound of Big Ben chiming in London. It is the news broadcast from England, and the men and women strain forward in their seats to hear the voice, brittle with distance, emanating from the radio. The British Broadcasting Service, the sound of home, exorcises its power over all of us. There is news from England – a crash at an aviation display, the death of the first British pilot to exceed the speed of sound; the Ministry of Food announces the end – on Sunday – of thirteen years of tea rationing. At the end of the broadcast there is a local report from East Africa. Fifty-eight unexplained grass fires broke out today on farms around Nyeri, destroying thousands of acres of prime grazing. Local farmers are attributing the fires to the secret society Mau Mau. It follows reports of mass oathing ceremonies across the region, and the murder last week of several Kikuyu who refused to take the Mau Mau oath. A curfew has been imposed. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Bishop at Nyeri declares that he will excommunicate any Catholic who supports the Mau Mau secret society or takes its oath. He confirmed that there had been desecration of pictures of Christ in the Nyeri area.”

 

On the ship the news of a secret society whose members have taken oaths to kill white men and throw them off their farms had seemed alarmist and unreal; there have been no reports of violence against Europeans, only against the Kikuyu who resist the movement. And yet – hearing it here in this small room clouded with the breath and smoke of the men and women whose lives like mine are intertwined with it – is like seeing a dark shape stir itself and shake off sleep. Nyeri is over a hundred miles from Kisima, but in Kenya a hundred miles is not such a great distance.

 

Nathaniel Logan has his camera out of his case. He is standing against the wall of the room taking photographs. I see the scene through his lens – the women in their evening dresses, looking at each other with glittering eyes, the men leaning back in their chairs, cheeks reddened by whiskey, the waiters hovering in their red fezzes, their black faces carved into that familiar, unmoving attitude of subservience.

 

“I thought you photographed animals,” I say, when he comes back to the table.

 

“Technically people are animals,” he says, smiling and putting down his camera. “But I don’t just work for the Museum. I write for newspapers.”

 

“About what?”

 

“Archaeology, natural history, anything newsworthy.”

 

“And what will you write about this?”

 

“That these good people feel under threat. That they will put whatever pressure is necessary on their government to protect them.”

 

“And will it?”

 

“Protect them?” He puts the lens cap back on his camera. “We’re seeing collective punishments, suppression of the Kikuyu press, closure of independent African schools. I’d say they were certainly trying.”

 

“Which is a good thing,” I say, hearing the reticence in his voice.

 

“I try to stay out of politics in this country.” He rubs a hand over his beard and smiles ruefully at me. “Gets me into trouble.”

 

The man at the table next to us drains his glass of whiskey, pushes back his chair and says, to no one in particular, “This country is going to the fucking dogs.” He limps out of the room.

 

Later, in the small single room on the ground floor of the Muthaiga Club, the story of Briar Rose catches at the edges of my waking mind. She sleeps for a hundred years, but that isn’t the magic. The magic is that the castle sleeps with her so that when she wakes the world is just as she left it – her mother, her father, even the animals are there just as they had been when tragedy struck. I want the farm to be that way, and the thought that it might not be is eating me alive. After all – my mother is dead. How can anything be the same again?

Reading Group Guide

Leopard at the Door Reading Group Guide

1. Over the course of the novel, Rachel—though always one of the more progressive characters—develops a more nuanced, less naive view of the impact of imperialism and racism in Kenya. How does this happen? Which characters and events are most influential in this transformation?

2. Were you surprised by the romance between Rachel and Michael? Why, or why not? What does each see in the other? How does their relationship develop and grow?

3. Discuss the role of memory in the novel. How does the past come to bear on Rachel’s aspirations, values, fears, and triumphs? How might Michael’s perception of the past differ from Rachel’s?

4. How does the legacy of World War II figure into the story?

5. Consider the reference to the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel in the novel. How is Rachel’s story similar? How is it different? Do you feel any sympathy for Robert, Rachel’s father, and Sara, his mistress?

6. Rachel’s home Kisima is located in rural northern Kenya and is so isolated that the closest neighboring farmhouse is an hour away. What impact does this setting have on the story? Why was it important for this story to be set there, rather than in a metropolitan area like Nairobi?

7. Much of the novel is concerned with imbalances of power and the fight for control and dominance. What relationships and institutions illustrate this theme? How do various characters try to exert control over Rachel? How do the European settlers try to control the African natives?

8. Discuss the importance of some of the smaller characters, such as Harold, Jim the cook, Kahiki, Nate Logan, and Lillian Markham. What does each add to the story?

9. The novel is not only a love story and bildungsroman but also a gripping and tense depiction of a turbulent moment in history. How did the author build the suspense in the story? Which were the most heart-pounding moments, and why?

10. Near the end of the story, Rachel is involuntarily committed to a mental institution because of her affair with Michael. What do these scenes convey about the function of asylums in British colonies in the 1950s?

11. In the postscript, Jennifer McVeigh quotes a historian who notes that only thirty-two European settlers were actually killed by the Mau Mau, yet the European characters in the novel treat the Mau Mau as a mighty threat to their own safety. What accounts for this discrepancy? Do you see any parallels to how rebellious and subversive groups, especially those whose members are mostly not white, are perceived today?

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Leopard at the Door 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous 6 months ago
I love a book that pulls me in and let's me see and feel the sights and sounds. I also leaves me thinking long after I put the book down. If like me, you like historically based fiction, then you may like this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bookendco More than 1 year ago
Love this book! It is beautifully written and the author gives life to each character. I had passionate feelings for each one - sometimes it was love, and for others it was outright hatred. I couldn't put this down.
bookendco More than 1 year ago
Love this book! It is beautifully written and the author gives life to each character. I had passionate feelings for each one - sometimes it was love, and for others it was outright hatred. I couldn't put this down.
Brigittehf More than 1 year ago
A Poignant Story This story is set in Kenya in the 1950s when it was a British Colony. The uprising of the Mau Mau, rebelling against the imposed regime is the focus of this sad and cruel story. Rachel lost her mother when she was eleven years old. She was sent back to England to stay with her grandparents and her education when she was twelve. She missed her beloved Kenya but, her father didn't encourage her to return. Rachel is now eighteen and makes her way back to her father's farm, her birth place. Robert, her father hasn't kept her informed of the developments in his life and she is surprised to find that he is living with Sara. She has a son and is very much the mistress of the house. Unlike Rachel's mother, she is a bigot and treats the natives with contempt and cruelty. She doesn’t like Rachel and her father goes along with her whims. He is no longer, the father she grew up with. Rachel no longer has a sense of belonging. The restrictions that Sara has imposed on the staff makes it even more difficult. She feels more at ease in Michael's company. He used to teach her when she was young and things were different as he was allowed to have an education. He now works as the mechanic and keeps his distance but, they gradually gain each other's trust. A forbidden relationship. Rachel starts having backflashes from her childhood and they will be the root of her downfall. The unrest has everyone on edge. The natives want to keep what is rightfully theirs, whilst the settlers want to keep what they have acquired. They live in comfort whilst the natives live in poverty and have to endure cruelty and humiliation. Most of the characters, including Michael have a dark side, although, his reasoning is more logical. Rachel is naive but, she is the most compassionate, just and strong character in the story. What happens to her towards the end is enough to bring tears to your eyes. The story is well researched and narrated. It reflects the atrocities from both sides of the conflict and the ones caught in the middle. The settlers' superior attitude and cruelty are horrific. The resulting massacres are barbaric. It's a distressing story which captures the colonisation of Kenya and the mass murders during that time. It's a part of history that is not widely broadcasted! I was kindly issued with an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley and the views expressed are my personal opinion.
jeanniezelos More than 1 year ago
Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh Review from Jeannie Zelos book reviews Genre: General Fiction, Historical Fiction I really really wanted to love this book, I adore books set back in time that involve characters from other countries, other cultures. I like to feel I'm there with them, sharing their experiences and to begin I thought this book would do it.  Sadly, though it started well I just don't really like any of the characters, and the story is so slow moving it almost comes to a stop. I wasn't expecting breakneck speed, the beauty of books like this for me is in the gentle pace that allows me to see and feel all the day to day minutiae, but even for me this was just too meandering.  As the story moved on it got more graphic, more murders, abuse, tortures of humans and animals. I just don't want to read that, I know it happens, that its an important part of the story but I don't want the gritty, horrific details.  Rachel - I felt sorry for her at first, she had an idyllic upbringing til her mum died and she was shipped off to England to grandparents who didn't really want her, even though she was away at boarding school most of the time. When she returns to Kenya, against her fathers wishes, she finds he's a very different man, and is living with a lady, Sara, who is the antithesis of her beloved mother. Her father comes over as spineless to me, maybe he's just given up? I don't know but the man we met when Rachel was a child was so different to who he is now. Then there's Sara, who is very clear - whites and natives do not mix, there is no place for being friendly with them, and any hint of them wanting to better themselves needs stamping down on, hard. She genuinely believes they are an inferior race, and need keeping in their place.  She clearly thinks Rachel lacks discipline and is not happy at the way she has freedom of the farm, freedom to talk to and help the native people. Gah, that makes me so angry, but there were, and still are, so many like Sara, who believe a white skin makes one superior. I'll stop my rant there ;-) It does make for an interesting read, I do like characters I can dislike but once more the story was just so slow moving. Sara would complain to Rachel's father, he in turn would gently suggest Rachel modify her behaviour, then Sara wouldn't feel he'd done enough, would get impatient with him, and would take steps to get what she wanted to happen. Complaining all the time if you want something done, do it yourself.  I didn't like the ending, felt very hurried and ambiguous and that's not how I like books to finish. Between that, the characters I didn't really feel for, the slow pace and the graphic cruelty I just couldn't get to like this story.   I can see others loved it though so you choose, you may have a stronger stomach and more patience when reading than me...It is very beautifully written, and there were scenic parts I loved, but overall it was one I was glad to put behind me.    Stars: Three, a wondefully descriptive novel in parts, but the story and the cruelty in it just weren't for me.    ARC supplied for review purposes by Netgalley and Publishers
Killingmesofly More than 1 year ago
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Sam1219 More than 1 year ago
I am voluntarily submitting my honest review after receiving a NetGalley edition of this book. This extremely well-written book is a haunting, beautiful and unflinchingly honest illustration of life in Kenya during the collapse of British colonial rule. The author does an excellent job of illustrating man's capacity for inhumanity and brutality against his fellow man, and how even innocents and those who make a concerted effort to remain separate from political events get swept up in the wake as the tide of violence washes over them. It is also a timeless portrait of a young woman's struggle to find herself in a family where she no longer fits after her father's remarriage, in a country whose political and social divisions she cannot understand and in a world where there is no one to protect her from the abuse of a locally powerful man. This book had me turning pages as quickly as I could, tied up in knots the whole time and emotionally wrung out by the end! An important story, powerfully told, this book is a must read!
ehaney578 More than 1 year ago
This review was written by Marie for a guest review post on Ever After Book Reviews blog: 4.5 Stars Leopard at the Door is a coming of age story depicting the life of our protagonist, Rachel. It is a historical fiction novel set in Kenya post WWII. From the beginning, the author introduces us to a breathtaking scenery and characters that are well thought out and written with spectacular depth. As the story began, I found myself intrigued by Rachel and her life. I continued to read and found myself invested in her and her past. With the author’s guidance, I became enthralled with the dynamics of Rachel’s upbringing, the untimely death of her mother, her lie beyond Kenya, and her return to the very place she went so long trying to avoid. I was hooked! But then came Rachel's father and his wife. This is where the story started to lose me. I can somewhat understand a level of bitterness on Rachel's father's part, but this man and his absolutely awful wife were nearly too much, even for me. They were cold, unfeeling and just wretched to Rachel. Their inexcusable behavior made me despise them, which I suppose is telling of just how gifted the author truly is. Outside of Rachel's relationship with her father and his wife, this book is superb. It has historical relevance, a touching story line and what I would call a unique romance. I never would have chosen this book on my own, but I'm glad that I was given the opportunity to give it a chance. I will definitely be giving this author more reading time. ***I read and reviewed a paperback copy of the book gifted to the blog in exchange for an honest review. All conclusions reached are my own***
JBronder More than 1 year ago
Rachel grew up on an estate in Kenya. But when she is 12, her mother dies and she is sent to a boarding school in England where her parents are from. Rachel longs for Africa and 6 years later returns but nothing is the same. Her father has a new wife, Sara who is miserable and makes everyone else miserable. Michael, her former teacher becomes a love interest. Then there is strife in the Kikuyu community. After fighting in World War II, many want independence from England while others are fine with the current political events. Rachel wants life to return to how things were in her youth. But you can never go back, only forward. I hate to say this but I couldn’t stand Rachel and her naivety. Her father was also weak and irritated me with his taking Sara’s side all the time. I did like the story based on the Mau Mau Rebellion. I don’t know how historically accurate it is, but I liked this part of the book better than Rachel’s story. I am interested in reading more on the Mau Mau Rebellion. This is a decent story but I don’t think that I would be reading other books by this author. It’s not a horrible story, I do think many will like it. I’m sorry to say that Leopard at the Door is not my cup of tea. I received Leopard at the Door from the publisher for free. This has in no way influenced my opinion of this book.
Myndia More than 1 year ago
At the age of 12, after her mother’s death, Rachel’s father sent her away from their home in Kenya, to live with her grandparents and attend school in England. Six years later, she returns to Kenya and discovers that you can never really go back home. My feelings about this book are all over the place. The writing itself is beautiful. McVeigh does a masterful job of setting us up in the gorgeous and wild country of Kenya. Africa is a place I’ve always been equal parts intrigued by and terrified of, and that feeling was with me throughout the entire novel. Although I can’t speak to her accuracy in depicting the Kikuyu, I can speak to the connection I felt, the empathy and respect, for their lives as they once were, and the situation they found themselves in through no fault of their own. As is always the case with good historical fiction, I find myself wanting to know more about that time period and what really happened. It has always been my feeling that Africa, on the whole, has been misunderstood (and unfairly disparaged) by those who have never lived there, and despite that, I’ve done little to learn more about it. Perhaps now that will change. The story itself was intriguing, though I admit, I struggled with the characters sometimes. Rachel seemed so naïve at times, so blind to what she did not wish to see, or perhaps denied what she knew to be true so that she could pursue what she wanted. Her father’s live-in girlfriend is simply awful, and while to some the evil stepmother trope might seem a bit overplayed, I understand why it had to be that way. She was despicable, but she served so many purposes – shining light on the imperialistic mindset of the British in Africa and on the weakness of Rachel’s father. The characters were not all likeable, but it isn’t exactly a happy go lucky story. So there you go. Up to the end, I was prepared to give the story the highest rating, I was just loving it so, so much. But the ending…I don’t know if it is how it as written or what was written that bothers me. It wasn’t what I expected and it felt rushed. The pace of the rest of the novel was slow and introspective, building up to the climax gradually, and then after what appeared to be the great cataclysmic event…it wasn’t over yet. I don’t know if it should have been cut off earlier, if the ending should have simply been different entirely, or if the ending that was written should have been a little less abrupt, but it did leave me wanting. So, despite the brilliant writing, etc., the ending rubbed a little of the shine off. However, I still recommend it. Despite its tiny imperfections, it’s a gorgeous book, and the subject matter is well worth your time. Note: I received this book from the publisher. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.